As we conclude Masechet Moed Kattan this week, I find myself reflecting upon the combination of two seemingly contradictory topics that we studied in this masechet. The first two chapters deal with the laws of Chol Hamoed, and then, in the middle of the third chapter, the masechet shifts gears and deals primarily with the laws of mourning. Chol hamoed and avelut couldn’t be more different! Chol Hamoed is a festive time. It is called a chag, a holiday, and “zman simchatenu,” the time of our happiness. Avelut is a time of sorrow and sadness. And yet, our masechet transitions seamlessly from one topic to the next.
Furthermore, the masechet spends some time discussing how we balance these two events when they occur simultaneously. How should we behave on Chol Hamoed if we find ourselves in a state of mourning? Can we express both the happiness of the holiday and the sadness of a personal loss simultaneously?
On the surface, the answer is no. In general, the holiday nullifies the avelut practices. If someone loses a relative and buries the relative an hour or two before a holiday, then he or she sits shiva for an hour and then gets up and is no longer in shiva because of the holiday. The gemara explains that the reason for this is that in a conflict between my personal sadness over the loss of a relative and communal happiness to celebrate the holiday, my personal sadness must take a backseat to the communal happiness and I must end my shiva before the holiday.
But what if someone dies during Chol Hamoed and we must bury the individual on Chol Hamoed? Do we rip a garment? Can we eulogize the individual? There is a lot of talmudic discussion as to whether and to what extent can we express grief to honor the deceased and how we deal with the tension between the sadness of death and the happiness of a holiday.
What’s clear from all these discussions is that Masechet Moed Kattan instructs us that we are not always free to express our emotions as we please. There are times when we may express our sadness, but there are times, like during our holidays, when we are obligated to not express our sadness in all the ways that we might want to express it, and we are obligated to act in a manner that likely will generate happiness. In my rabbinic career, this halacha has proven to be one of the most difficult ones to observe. How can you expect a mourner who lost a relative a day before a holiday to get up from shiva and act in a joyous manner a day later? Many mourners in this situation have struggled mightily with this halacha and in these instances, I pray that God somehow give the mourner the strength to deal with his or her loss in a healthy way absent a meaningful shiva.
At the same time, I have found the deference of personal sadness to the requirement of communal happiness instructive for how we approach life in general. Unfortunately, we Jews have experienced a paradoxical history. On the one hand, we have been victimized like no other race or religion in history through murder, expulsions, forced conversions, and the like, and, on the other hand, we have never allowed ourselves to remain in our state of mourning. While we were being victimized, we contributed an enormous body of culture and literature to the world. We gave the world the values of a Sabbath, peace on earth, universal literacy, charity, justice, monotheism and the infinite value of every human life. So often throughout history, we have had every right to naturally feel sorry for ourselves and remain in a state of pain and sorrow. Instead, we rejected this state of mourning and we chose to cancel our avelut. We chose the path of simcha. We chose to celebrate every second that God gave us on this earth by partnering with God and sharing our values with the world at large and that’s why we have been so successful as a nation.
The interaction between Chol Hamoed and avelut in Masechet Moed Kattan conveys to us that fighting to be happy is a choice. After a setback, we can choose whether we want to remain in a state of sadness and continue to feel lousy about ourselves or anxious or fearful or angry. We also can choose to fight to be happy, to do our best to overcome disappointments in our life, and to always fight to rebuild our lives.